Tuesday, January 20, 2015

what comes next

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The other day I was leaving my yoga class and I heard my instructor in her sweet Tennessee drawl saying to the receptionist “Did Jess leave yet?” when the woman didn’t know who she was talking about she said “you know Very Pregnant Jess? Did she leave yet?” I chuckled and tapped her on the shoulder. She simply wanted to say goodbye and wish me well seeing as this was the last class I would be able to make it to before the baby is born. Or maybe she was hoping this is the last class I’m going to waddle into before the baby is born. I have watched over the last few weeks everyone in the beginning of class peeking at me with a mix of sweetness and horror as I toddle to the mat and heavy breathe my way through the postures with a lot of support from props.

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I am so pregnant it is almost outrageous. At 38 weeks looking like I’m a month overdue because I have nourished myself so thoroughly (aka eaten like a wolverine) this whole pregnancy. At the point where every single person just kind of chuckles at you and is like “are you SO done?” to which I smile through gritted teeth and have the same conversation I have already had seven times that day and will have at least four more. Of course I’m ready and in another sense- holy shit totally NOT READY. I mean, this situation is kind of a big deal. Because it’s not like this situation ends with labor- then we have to be parents.

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It’s funny how much people want to talk to pregnant ladies. Strange middle aged men I don’t know asking if it’s my first child, sweet Irish grandmothers lilting in their brogue “when is the blessed event?”, and then of course the clueless asshat that tells me “yikes, are you sure it’s not twins?!” or “whoa. You are gonna have a BIG baby.” Let me just clue those folks into something, when the only exit route is a smallish, albeit elastic area the last thing a lady wants to hear is how “omg HUGE” their baby is going to be. This includes you mom. You can stop saying “I think you got biggah” every time you see me.

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Because Very Pregnant Jess might become Very Violent Jess if you don’t tone it down with the size comments. I know that I am comically enormous and I know deep down that this is a gift of a healthy, full term pregnancy. I also know that my current physical truth is that I need a touch of momentum to get out of the couch and every day I resemble Tony Soprano just a bit more. As in: my favorite leisure activities include heavy breathing and eating cold pasta lying down. It’s an identity I’m embracing right now and, to be quite honest, I’m also counting the minutes til it’s over because it is gonna be so frickin’ sweet to put shoes on without getting winded. I simply can’t wait. Oh and the magic of motherhood blah blah blah. That’ll be sweet too, I’m sure.

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But being Very Pregnant and working a demanding physical job during the holidays was freaking hard, yo. I’ve been determined to keep moving, stay active and keep on cooking until the end of my pregnancy and for the most part, I have been able to do that. But stamina is an issue and you do end up only getting to one or two out of the four things you had planned to accomplish on any given day. So I apologize for all the silence the past two months, blog wise, but I’ve just been doing what I can. The one day of the week where I completely recoup has always and will always be Sundays. Sundays are a sacred day in the Benson household and I hope Baby Benson gets this whenever he or she gets here. Sundays are for no alarms and staying in sweatpants, they are for a big pot of coffee and the geeky mugs we bought on our honeymoon that say I HEART MY HUSBAND and I HEART MY WIFE and more than anything they are for a simple, rib-sticking, comforting breakfast, a good conversation, and usually some sort of late 1970s R&B. This is how we do and we will continue to do in some way, shape or form when our party of two becomes a party of three. Let's just we're excited for what comes next.

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POTATO and SPINACH SKILLET BREAKFAST

5-6 red bliss potatoes, diced
1 ½ tbsp. butter
2-3 tbs. olive oil
½ white onion, minced
1 shallot
3 cloves garlic
Smoked paprika
Lawry’s Seasoned Salt
Cayenne
Kosher Salt
Black Pepper
2-3 cups baby spinach leaves
4 eggs

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Quarter and dice potatoes into equal-sized chunks and cover with cold water in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil and cook until just tender, easily pricked with a knife. While the potatoes cook, prepare all other ingredients. Set a cast iron skillet over medium heat and melt butter and olive oil together. Add onion and shallot and sauté until fragrant and slightly caramelized (about 7-8 minutes). Mince garlic and add, along with about 1-2 tsp. smoked paprika, a healthy shake of Lawry’s and Old Bay and a tiny pinch of cayenne. Drain potatoes and add to skillet- add a touch more oil or butter if the skillet seems dry. Fry potatoes until completely cooked through and starting to crisp a bit on the edges, about another 8 minutes or so.

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Scatter spinach leaves into potatoes and fold together to wilt spinach. Add a pinch of kosher salt and a crank of pepper. Using a wooden spoon or spatula, carve out four little pockets within the potato and spinach mixture and carefully crack one egg into each pocket. If the pan looks dry at all before you do this, add just a touch more oil to the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat a touch to medium-low and cover the skillet for about 4 minutes.

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Lift cover and check progress on eggs. You want the whites completely firm but the yolks still a bit liquid. My heat was particularly low and I think it took about 6 minutes or so to finish the eggs to a nice over-easy. Sprinkle a touch more salt and some fresh cracked pepper over. Serve immediately.

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Friday, November 28, 2014

a little odd

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I think it’s a little odd to me that I have never made meatloaf before. Because what is meatloaf if not an oversized meatball? And everybody knows that meatballs are my spirit food. So it makes me wonder why it took me until the tender age of 34 to make a meatloaf of my own. And what a meatloaf it is. Super straightforward with only one additional step- finely chopped mushrooms sautéed in a little bit of soy sauce. It adds a depth of salty flavor that is basically exactly what I want out of any dish made up of a mound of ground beef. It always makes me chuckle though because when I can’t refer to meatloaf without thinking of this completely amazing fake Guy Fieri menu- which if you haven’t read yet stop everything you’re doing and do so right now. I was literally reduced to tears reading it for the first time.

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But it’s funny because I do dig meatloaf because it’s nuthin’ fancy. It's definitely not the sexiest dish out there…but it doesn’t have to be. And it doesn’t have to pretend it’s anything that it’s not. All that's going on here is classic comfort food through and through. Simple to prepare, makes the house smell delicious on a Sunday afternoon and tastes all the better over a pile of fluffy mashed potatoes. Now I’m not gonna deny that this is a pretty hefty dish, but it’s the kind of classic chow that’s perfect for dishing up for your in-laws and mom for Sunday supper. In order to cut the richness of the meal, I also like to include a lightly dressed green salad and some roasted green beans, or asparagus. Nuthin’ fancy, but there’s nuthin’ wrong with that.

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PORKY’S ‘NUTHIN’ FANCY’ MEATLOAF

1 ½ lb. ground beef
1 lb. ground pork
One yellow onion, grated
½ cup caramelized onions, finely chopped (optional)
7-8 mushrooms, cleaned and finely chopped
2 tsp. olive oil
1 tsp. butter
1 ½ tbs. soy sauce
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup Fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
½ cup Panko breadcrumbs
Salt
Pepper
1 egg
2-3 tsp. Worcestershire
1-2 tbs. ketchup
1 ½ tsp. Dijon

For Glaze:

¼ cup brown sugar
Splash Worcestershire
1 tsp. Dijon
¾ cup ketchup

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Preheat oven to 375. Heat butter and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium heat. Wipe mushrooms clean with a damp rag and then chop, fairly finely. Add to pan and sauté for about five minutes. Deglaze the pan with soy sauce, stirring constantly and let cook one or two minutes more. Remove from heat and set aside; allow to cool for a few minutes. While the mushrooms first get going, cut onion into quarters and grate on the large-holed side of a box grater. If using caramelized onions (which I used only because I had some in the fridge that needed to be used up) place in the bowl of a small food processor and pulse until finely chopped.

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In a large bowl combine ground beef and ground pork, season with a generous pinch of salt and pepper. Add onions, both raw and caramelized (if using), add parmesan, parsley, breadcrumbs and sautéed mushrooms. Then, drop in the egg, Worcestershire, ketchup and Dijon. Using clean hands, with your fingers spread claw-like, combine everything together loosely, taking care not to over work the meat. Lightly oil the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish and gather the meat mixture together, wrangling it into a loaf-like shape. It can be a little free form and even though I have never tried the alternative, I think I much prefer this to using a bread loaf pan, because with this method you get a higher ratio of crusted outer layer to inner juicy meat layer. Dang, now I want to make another meatloaf.

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In a small, nonstick sauce pan combine brown sugar, ketchup, Dijon and Worcestershire. Heat over medium low heat until a bit bubbly and all sugar is dissolved. Spoon glaze over the top of your meatloaf and let it drizzle down the sides. Place the whole shebang into your preheated oven and bake for about 40-50 minutes or until a meat thermometer inserted in the middle reads 165.

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Serve with simple garlic mashed potatoes and a green vegetable or salad. This makes for great leftover sandwiches if you should happen to have any left. There were five of us eating dinner in this instance, so we had only the tiniest bit of leftovers.

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EASIEST GARLIC MASHED

4-5 russet potatoes, scrubbed, peeled and chopped
2-3 whole cloves peeled garlic
2-3 tbs. butter
Scant ¼ cup half and half

Cut potatoes into large chunks and cover with cold water in a medium to large stock pot, depending on how many potatoes you’re using. Add garlic, cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Remove the lid and let crank, until potatoes are soft when pierced with a knife. Drain water, return potatoes and garlic to pan, add butter, half and half and two big pinches kosher salt. Crank a bit of crushed black pepper over the top and puree with an immersion blender until lump-free and creamy. Don’t have an immersion blender: mash 'em old school with a regular masher. Taste test and add more salt, butter or another splash half and half if needed. Serve immediately.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

too big to ignore

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I was told to eat eggs by my midwife and I’m nothing if not vigilant at following instructions when it comes to food. Say what’s that you say? Midwife, Jess? Yes it’s true, there’s something in my belly that, for once, is not a burrito*. Spoiler alert: it’s a baby and we’re all feeling pretty stoked about it! I’m actually quite far along at this point- over the halfway mark at 24 weeks (or like 5-6 months in regular people speak). Baby Dickens will make his or her debut around the first week of February so let’s pray that we don’t have a 20 foot snow storm with three day power outages; because while I’m pretty burly when it comes to many things, giving birth to a baby in an unheated wood paneled basement does not sound like my idea of a good time.

*I can in no way whatsoever guarantee that at your particular reading of this blog post that I don’t also have a burrito in my belly.

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So the past few months of being lazy were totally justified- I mean. I’d say. As a white lady of a certain age, I’m pretty used to beating myself up if my day off productivity level a nice midpoint between Martha Stewart and Jesus. I like to Get Stuff Done- blog post (check), two loads of laundry (check), make chicken stock (check), teach yoga class (check), make hugely unsuccessful attempt at growing herb garden (double check). So when I found out I was pregnant the first week of June I embraced the new need for lots of down time and I felt, completely fine ignoring much of the to-do list and just chilling out when I had some time to myself. I mean shit I’m growing a human, I think that’s task enough for a Tuesday, wouldn’t you say? It’s all together very liberating and a gal could really get used to this. Especially the ignoring-the-herb-garden part, because I’m already really good at that.

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I have been hesitant to share this big news here, because well, I haven’t been here all that much. And I didn’t want to come back and be all “Sup dudes, how’s your summer? B T dubbs I’m pregnant. It's yours.” Plus, online pregnancy announcements in this age of all things baby being hyper fetishized, make me feel sort of self conscious. I think they are cute- don’t get me wrong, just not for me. I don’t get the facebook baby announcement- mostly because it’s SO MUCH MORE FUN to tell people in person. They jump up and down and hug you and scream (well the ladies do) and you get to see real joy in their faces. And some people cry! And if you’re me you also cry. Every single person you tell you cry, even an odd elderly gentleman at work who asked me in a creepy tone if I was “with child.” It’s all just so hilarious and so emotional and so real I would never want to reduce it to likes and comments of ‘congrats’ punched out on an iphone while someone is waiting for the T.

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And you know we’ve always been an in-person kind of family. So, I didn’t want to share news like this in a blog post until it was, well, too big to ignore. Which, I totally am. I already look like I ate another, smaller, weaker pregnant lady and I kind of love it. The first trimester food is not your friend because it feels a bit like a three month hangover. You want food. You just don’t know if food is going to cooperate once it’s in your possession. At 14 weeks I turned the corner though and I went from wanting toast with a side of toast to craving, hm, All The Foods. Thank god I have had the kind of pregnancy where cooking is still my favorite leisure activity. My sister and some close friends lamented that they just didn’t have it in ‘em/ were too ill or exhausted to saddle up to the stove. Whereas during my first few exhausted, nauseous weeks in the first trimester even though I didn’t feel like eating all that much the kitchen was the only place I felt normal. I hope that is always the case. Even when I have this bambino strapped to my chest and I’m accidentally splashing sauces on their little face (just kidding…I’ll be more careful than that!) So anyways, enough about the baby, back to the eggs!

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BRIOCHE ‘BENEDICT’ BREAKFAST STRATA

Softened butter for pan
8-10 small brioche rolls, or about ¾ of a loaf brioche, preferably day-old
½ lb. Canadian Bacon, diced
½ cup shredded mozzarella
¾ cup shredded sharp cheddar
1/3 cup grated parmesan
10 eggs
2 cups whole milk
1 ½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
Salt and pepper

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Slice brioche into large chunks, about 1-2 inches square-ish. In a large glass baking dish or oven-safe skillet, spread a thin layer of butter evenly on bottom and sides of pan. Set a small skillet to medium heat and brown Canadian bacon for a few minutes on each side. Dump brioche chunks into pan and in a large mixing bowl combine eggs, milk, Dijon, salt and pepper. Whisk together thoroughly and fold in approximately ¾ of the shredded cheeses (cheddar and mozzarella only), reserving parmesan and remaining shredded cheeses for later use. Scatter Canadian bacon into pan with brioche and pour egg and cheese mixture over. Squish everything down a bit so all the bread has a chance to absorb the custard. Pinch a touch more salt and pepper over the top and then scatter on reserved cheeses, including grated parmesan. Chill up to 4 hours, but preferably overnight.

Optional step: I layered a sheet of plastic wrap and two heavy dinner plates on top of my strata to weight down the top so that all the bread would saturate in custard as it chilled and there would be no dry bits.

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In the morning one hour before baking: set strata out at room temperature; remove plastic wrap and plates, if using. Set oven to preheat at 375. Cover strata loosely with tin foil and bake, checking periodically for 45-50 minutes. Remove tin foil for last 10-15 minutes of baking so it gets golden brown and crusty on top. If your strata is especially soupy- cooking time may take closer to an hour. Mine was not because my brioche was a bit stale (which is ideal) so it soaked up every bit of egg. Cooking is done when a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean and it’s golden brown on top.

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Let sit about 5-10 minutes before serving. We served this with a pot of baked beans, some fruit salad and yogurt- it was a super hearty fall brunch. I also ate the leftovers for a whole week and did not get tired of it once. It is by no means a healthy breakfast dish- it’s a total comfort dish and, aside from chilling overnight, only takes about ten minutes to prepare. Perfect for a brunch or lunch crowd and can serve at least 6 people. Or one, highly motivated pregnant lady in her second trimester.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

how to improve anything

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You know on Sunday it was 83 degrees out. And I have this killer potato salad recipe that the unseasonably warm weather made me feel like I could get away with posting. Even though you and I both know that potato salad season is pretty much officially over. But today? Today it is grey and chilly and I just spent a few delicious hours in the kitchen making stock and pumpkin muffins and a quick coconut curry sauce for tomorrow’s dinner. Today is a day for real food. Not appetizers or cookout side dishes. And it just frankly does not feel like potato salad weather. It feels like we need something savory and wholesome and I’ve got just the thing.

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This recipe is continued proof of the well-tested fact that you can improve any food in the whole world by wrapping it in prosciutto. Heck, I bet you could even make a few undesirable people in your life more appealing by wrapping them in a few slices! Boneless skinless chicken breasts are like the background music of weeknight dinners. Somehow simultaneously boring and annoying. So easy to prepare that they are hard to ignore, but often so quick to dry out that often fall far short of satisfying. However, when carefully wrapped in salty, crisped prosciutto and smothered in a savory mushroom sauce, they turn from “oh chicken?” into “oh SNAP!” in no time. This was a Sunday supper many weeks back; but if you have the time it’s relatively quick enough work for a weeknight meal.

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PROSCIUTTO WRAPPED CHICKEN with 
SHERRIED MUSHROOM PAN GRAVY

For the chicken breasts: 

3-4 chicken breasts
6 to 8 slices of thinly sliced prosciutto
Parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
3 tbs. olive oil
2 tbs. butter

For the pan gravy: 

1 shallot, finely minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 lb. button mushrooms, wiped clean and thinly sliced
1-2 tbs. butter
¾ cup cream sherry*
Chicken stock (if needed)
½ tsp. Dijon mustard
Heavy cream or half and half (optional)
Salt and pepper

*for my feelings about sherry check this post

Generously salt and pepper each side of your chicken breasts; then dust both sides with parmesan cheese. Wrap one or two slices of prosciutto around the middle of each breast so that it overlaps to form a nice ‘belt’. Mmmm prosciutto belts.

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In a large skillet or braising pan, heat butter and oil over medium to medium-high heat until butter is slightly foamy but still pale yellow and pan is nice and hot. Place chicken, seal side down in pan and let cook approximately 4 minutes per side, until nicely browned and prosciutto has crisped a bit. Pull chicken from pan and set aside; it will complete cooking through in the mushroom sauce in a few moments.

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Reduce heat to medium and add another small drizzle of oil to pan, plus 1-2 tbs. butter. Sauté shallots until the translucent and fragrant (about 1-2 minutes) add garlic and mushrooms, generously salt and pepper; and stir together well to completely coat in butter and oil. Let mushrooms cook about 5-6 minutes, stirring every so often, until they have purged some liquid, browned and shrunk down a bit. Turn heat to high and pour sherry in, using a wooden spoon or spatula to scrape the bottom of the pan as the sherry reduces. Add Dijon and a few splashes of chicken stock and maybe another teaspoon of butter for good measure. Let reduce and thicken for about 3-4 minutes, then turn heat down to medium. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary. If it still tastes boozy from the sherry, turn the heat back up and let reduce a little more, if you feel there is not enough liquid, splash in a bit more stock. Return chicken breasts to pan for an additional few minutes, or until a thermometer inserted into each breast reads 165 degrees. Remove chicken from pan and plate, taste mushroom sauce, season if necessary and if you choose, swirl in just a touch of half and half or cream to thicken the sauce. Pour sauce and mushrooms over chicken. Serve immediately.

Serve with thick slices of olive oil rubbed grilled foccacia bread and a green salad or vegetable dish.

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Wednesday, September 10, 2014

open concept

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Oh haaaaay....guess I wasn't joking about slacking off and taking advantage of summer. Second week in September and I feel like it can't possibly already be this far into fall. The good news is I have an enormous backlog of deliciousness to share with you. Like to hear about it? Here it go... I cook without rules and often without any concept whatsoever. Like most households we tend to have our standard batch of groceries that we buy each week and that gets us through at least 5 breakfasts and lunch and maybe the one or two dinners we actually get to sit down to together. And it always, always has to be supplemented by additional trips to the grocery store. Fortunately, not a big deal for me since I am financially obligated to be inside not just a grocery store but the one we primarily shop at at least 35 hours per week.

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When you have a decently stocked pantry and a few odds and ends of veggies but no particular vision, that is when kitchen creativity gets cookin. At least if you’re a geek like me. Day dreaming about the contents of your fridge and attempting to make a whole meal of food out of them is one of my most favorite hobbies and it’s also the kind of free association thinking that creates such Benson family favorites as Potato Tacos or my most coveted Transcendental Burritos and pretty much any easy pasta dish that I’ve had cause to cook up in the past decade. One such invention that has been on recent rotation is this here. An amalgam of components that we have dubbed “Yummy Bowls” because basically, well, they come in a bowl and they are yummy. It’s not that deep.

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More a loose framework than an actual recipe this is one of my favorite things to make for lunch on a day off, or for a quick, but filling and healthy supper, or what I make for lunch when a vegan comes over (hi Ashley!). It ends up being a mish mash of whatever produce I have around, over a bed of starch (rice, cous cous or even farro) and always either some go-to crispy baked tofu or this here delicious and fast marinated grilled tofu. This preparation does everything I want a proper recipe to do to tofu- infuses it with mouth watering flavor and gives it an appealing texture – crispy on the outside, tender within. We like to garnish these with a dollop of hummus, some Sriracha and a sunny side up egg (but of course not when the vegans are coming). It’s super filling and pretty virtuous, so I don’t even feel bad when I eat a  half whole entire caramel filled chocolate bar after dinner. If I make this for myself for lunch, I have enough leftover to make myself a smaller Yummy Bowl the next day as leftovers. If I make it for myself and someone else, we usually house it all. It’s healthy after all and there’s only so much virtue to go around.

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YUMMY BOWLS (we're working on the trademark for this and Potato Tacos)

White or brown rice, prepared according to package directions
Grilled Marinated Tofu
Easy Baked Sweet Potatoes
Sauteed Mushrooms
Sauteed Spinach, Peas and Red Onion
2 Eggs, poached or sunny side up

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GRILLED MARINATED TOFU

2 scallions, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1-2 tsp. grated ginger
¼ cup soy sauce
¼ cup olive oil
2 tsp. honey
A few shakes rice vinegar
1-2 squeezes Sriracha or other hot sauce
1 package extra firm tofu, pressed, drained and sliced

To press and drain tofu: remove from packaging and place in a shallow bowl or on a plate with a bit of depth. Stack 1 or 2 plates on top and weight with two cans, or something equally heavy. Let press for 15-20 minutes before draining off excess water and slicing. This is a serious pro tip for getting a nice texture out of your tofu- even though it takes extra prep time I never skip this step.

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While the tofu is pressing, prepare your marinade in a large Ziploc bag. Combine all ingredients and squish together gently to combine. Once the tofu is pressed and sliced, add to bag, squeezing out extra air as you close and set to marinate in the fridge. 30 minutes, or up to overnight.

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Heat grill to medium heat. Pour olive or canola oil onto a paper towel and using tongs, grease the grates of your grill. Place tofu on grill and cook, about 3-5 minutes on each side, flipping once. It may still stick a bit, becase there is no fat in the actual tofu itself. I simply jimmied it off with a nice sharp spatula and made sure to regrease the grill with a little bit more oil before flipping to the second side. Remove and enjoy, either in yummy bowls or as a salad topping or simply a quick, high protein snack.

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EASY BAKED SWEET POTATOES 

1-2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

You can’t get much easier than this. Peel and cube potatoes and toss with a drizzle of oil, a healthy pinch of salt and a few cranks of pepper. Roast at 400 for 30-40 minutes or until tender, tossing at least once. These are always a delicious easy side dish or nice salad topper.

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SAUTEED MUSHROOMS

1 bunch button or cremini mushrooms, wiped clean with a damp cloth
Olive oil
Butter
Salt, pepper

Stop me if I’m insulting your intelligence at any point..every component here is dead simple, but I also like to really follow through on the directions. These mushrooms, like the sweet potatoes and most other components of the Yummy Bowls are super easy, work as a simple side dish and require little more than trimming and chopping. Heat equal parts butter and olive oil in a skillet over medium heat (about 1 ½ tsp. of each depending on how many mushrooms you’re cooking). Add mushrooms and a sprinkle of salt. Let brown, turning every so often until they have purged their liquid and darkened in color, about 8-10 minutes. Season again with salt and black pepper.

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SAUTEED SPINACH, PEAS and RED ONION

1 bunch baby spinach leaves
½ red onion, thinly sliced
¼ - ½ bag frozen sweet peas
Olive oil
Salt, pepper

This component is totally the result of what I had on hand, if that wasn’t obvious already. Once the mushrooms were cooked, I wiped out the same skillet, heated up a bit more olive oil and sautéed first the onion, then spinach and peas until everything was cooked through nicely. Plenty of salt and pepper for flavor and we’ve got ourselves a pretty packed, nice looking Yummy Bowl situation.

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EGGS and RICE I’m not going to tell you how the poach/fry an egg or make rice. We all have limits and I think I crossed mine with the spinach instructions.

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Layer all components in a big ass bowl, with the egg on top. Sprinkle with salt and pepper and maybe season a bit with hot sauce, Sriracha or any sauce you’re into. Salt and pepper over the top, slice into the egg so the yolk runs down over everything and….you see we don’t call it a Yummy Bowl for nothing.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.